ISIS Is Sisi Spelled Backwards

It’s time to resist the tyranny of false dichotomies in the Middle East.

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We Arabs have been caught for decades between the horns of a false and oppressive dilemma, forced to either support the ruling autocrats in return for safety and stability, or to side with Islamist radicals in order to throw off the tyrants’ yoke and avenge their transgressions. For a brief but historically important moment, the Arab Spring represented a generation that looked forward to a world in which we do not have to repeatedly choose between two evils.

Regional stakeholders, however, now seem to have fallen back into looking at the region though a crudely simplistic prism of “secularists versus radicals.” This is a habit that informs their view of the recent counter-revolution and the toxic polarization that goes with it. Western observers in particular are reverting to the depressing pattern of legitimizing despotic dictatorships, which they see as sources of regional stability and bulwarks against terrorism.

We’ve seen key Western countries stand by as their regional allies funded extreme groups in order to battle the Syrian tyrant, then turned around and funded a military strongman to suspend democracy in Egypt in the name of battling “fundamentalism.” Meanwhile, we do not hear even a whimper of protest as these very allies persecute human rights defenders who can actually present a real alternative.

It was this same kind of thinking that legitimized the dictatorships of Mubarak and Ben Ali, enabled security cooperation with both Assad and Gaddafi, and treated the Gulf autocracies as loyal friends despite their shameful human rights records. Unfortunately, this attitude is being restored as Western players shift back to a narrow, security-minded view of the region. I would like to argue that this view presents a false dichotomy between secular dictators and religious extremists — one that fatally excludes the possibility of other choices worth supporting.

This false dichotomy has been around for decades, but its latest incarnation goes back to the first few weeks of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Perhaps the most poignant moment came when the second round of the 2012 Egyptian presidential elections presented a choice between Mubarak’s final prime minister, Ahmad Shafik, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Moammad Morsi.

Two years and many catastrophes later, the options have become far more extreme. One is embodied by a military strongman with hundreds of deaths on his hands, the other by the self-declared leader of a messianic cult with dozens of massacres on its hands. It’s tragically comical that ISIS is Sisi spelled backwards.

The nationalist strongman and the Islamist radical present themselves as polar opposites — but they’re similar in more ways that you may realize. Both extremes are born out of the same twentieth-century political culture that gave us authoritarian interpretations of just about every ideology: authoritarian Islamism, authoritarian nationalism, authoritarian socialism, and even, yes, authoritarian liberalism. Both view human rights not as inviolable or inherent, but as granted by the state, which can then reduce or suspend them at will. And both envision a state in which some people have less rights than others.

Neither tolerates freedom of thought, and both wish to punish dissent and criminalize criticism. To one side, criticism is tantamount to treason, or to membership in a foreign conspiracy. To the other, criticism is tantamount to apostasy or heresy. Journalists and intellectuals typically bear the brunt of this, as we have seen in Sisi’s Egypt and in the territories under ISIS control. The objective for both seems to be to rule with as few expectations of transparency as possible.

Both want to be empowered to make laws without oversight — to rule, essentially, by decree, unencumbered by any internal debate or politics. Be it in the name of the faith or the name of the nation, annoyances such as human rights concerns are not only frowned upon but all but criminalized. In the “war against terror” or the “war to defend the faith,” criticism is dissent, dissent is treason, and treason is punishable by elimination.

Both extremes attract statists who wish to use the proactive power of an empowered government to establish a monopoly over society. For one side, the state is the nation and the nation is the state; for the other, the state is religion and religion is the state. Of course, the abstract concept of “nation” or “religion” must be epitomized by a person or party who then demands and expects unquestioning, uncritical loyalty, and rules in the name of “the nation” or “the faith,” while conveniently shielded from accountability.

Both sides have a deeply exclusionary, “with us or against us” worldview that manifests itself in a profound refusal to coexist with others. In the run-up to the 2012 elections, we saw the Mubarak-associated figure Shafik hint at banning Islamist parties should he get elected; during Morsi’s term we then watched Islamist discourse squeeze the space for civil society. Further down this slippery slope, we’ve seen Sisi’s regime pass mass death sentences and imprison over 40,000 people — while we’ve seen ISIS massacre entire tribes.

Finally — and perhaps most importantly — both are failures. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power ended up strengthening the military establishment and empowering it to stage its grand comeback. Sisi’s rule in Egypt, which started with a promise of security and stability, saw the official expansion of ISIS into Egyptian territories. Meanwhile, ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria, which promised to “liberate” both countries, have caused Western countries to send more aid to Iraq’s government, consider re-legitimizing Assad, and coordinate with Iran.

As an Arab Spring activist who was forcibly expelled from the United Arab Emirates, my lifelong home, I’m painfully aware of what happens when you reject both fundamentalism and dictatorship. In the land of pure black and pure white, yelling “gray” is blasphemy. In my recent speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum, I argued that the path to a true Arab Spring starts with rejecting both nationalistic fascism and Islamist radicalism, and forging a path that cuts straight between the horns of the depressing dilemma.

We need to understand that tyranny and terrorism feed off each other in an ever-worsening vicious cycle. Tyranny justifies terrorism through its oppression and injustice — while terrorism justifies tyranny through its indiscriminate violence, giving the state a pretext for emergency action and a suspension of normal procedure in order to “restore stability.” The lesson from our recent history is that radicalism is not the path to liberation, but only to more tyranny and foreign intervention; and that despotism is not the path to stability, but only to further instability and radicalization.

The Arab Spring is about believing that we don’t have to eternally choose between these two evils, and that we can present a real alternative. Arab Spring activists come from across the political spectrum, but they share a belief in fundamental individual rights, coexistence within one political system, and an open marketplace for ideas. These are the people who represent me — and whom I hope to have successfully, if briefly, represented in a public forum.

The West, in particular, needs to recognize as a national security threat not only terrorists who peddle radical ideologies to justify and perpetrate acts of violence, but also tyrants who through their brutality create the very environment in which such radical ideologies grow and thrive. Supporters of and apologists for tyrants must be treated with the same severity as supporters of and apologists for terrorists.

As for us, as Arabs, we need to view both extremes as an existential threat. Our region has turned into a playground for tyrants and terrorists – and with each depressing cycle the extremes become more evil, making either choice more disastrous, and making it even more important to reject both. We’ll keep going from tyranny to terrorism to foreign intervention until we find our voice and break the cycle from within.

There are some of us who haven’t given up.


Iyad el-Baghdadi is a writer and a fellow at Norwegian think tank Civita. Find him on Twitter at @iyad_elbaghdadi. Twitter: @iyad_elbaghdadi